For nearly 20 years, I’ve been watching the Cubs on WGN. Although I had never been to Wrigley, I always felt like I belonged there. Last summer, even after I had finally planned my first trip to Chicago, the fact that I’d actually be there watching the Cubs just wouldn’t sink in. This trip was supposed to happen for many summers before. Things just always seemed to get in the way. Even though I had the tickets for the flight and game in hand, I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. (I’m a Cubs fan. That’s what we do. Besides, I’ve got a touch of the Curse myself. More on that later.)
And drop that other shoe did. Just a month after Hurricane Katrina hit to the east of Baton Rouge and on the very day I was scheduled to leave for Chicago, Hurricane Rita struck to the west of us. Neither hurricane did long term damage to our city, but both brought heavy enough winds to knock down power lines and trees. Oh, and shut down airports. We knew it was coming on Friday. We just didn’t know how early. My flight was for 6 a.m. I went to bed hoping I would make it out before the storm hit.
I rushed to the airport, as if my being early would somehow get the plane off the ground sooner. The winds had already picked up as I sat in a deserted gate. I tried to figure out how many hours it would take by car if the plane wouldn’t take off. Not enough time. But we did make it out – on one of the last flights out of Baton Rouge before the airport was closed. The first leg made it to Memphis, where there were a lot of angry people still waiting for flights from the day before. Once I left Memphis, I knew I was actually going to make it.
As we approached Chicago, the view into downtown was breathtaking. There was no way to stop a gigantic smile from taking over my face. I must have looked like a lunatic to the people around me. All the Chicago songs I had ever heard filled my head. I had to fight to keep from breaking into song. I raced out of the airport, onto the El, and to Lincoln Park to unload my bags at Kyle’s apartment. After a quick change into my Todd Walker jersey, I was ready to go. I waited for the El to Wrigley with all the other Cub gear wearing fans.
Two stops later, I got off the train at the Addison stop. As I stepped onto the platform, I saw It. Again, a smile the size of Texas took over my face. I walked past the billboard for Old Style Beer that read, "Believe or Leave" and knew I was home. I made my way out of the station and down the streets of Wrigleyville, passing shops where I had shopped online. A few blocks took me to the outside of the stadium. As I was looking for my gate, I took in the sights and sounds of this ancient neighborhood which seemed to come alive with the hustle and bustle of folks making their way to the game.
Finally making it to my gate, I stood for a long time watching as the crowd outside the stadium grew larger, undauntedby the fact that I’d be going in alone. These were my people. This was my stadium. My team. After a few minutes, I looked up and realized where I was standing. Under the majestic red sign that has become synonymous with Wrigley and the Cubs. I stared at it in awe. How could I have been standing under it and missed seeing it?
After selling my spare ticket, I had just enough time to grab my free promotional Cubs Snoopy and make it to my seat. I wove through the walkways, past the concession stands, and up the ramp to the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. As I hit the landing and saw the whole field, I literally lost my breath. My gasping out loud made the usher giggle. I guess she had seen that before.
The seat I had purchased on eBay was OK, but I knew I could move down to a little better view. Twenty-seven years of navigating Tiger Stadium have made me fearless in my pursuit of finding any ticket and using it to get to better seats. I finally landed on the second level, directly behind home plate. Wow.
I made a quick call to Louisiana to check on things. It seems the storm was just beginning to hit. It didn’t look good. A tree had already gone through my grandma’s roof, but she was OK. I decided not to feel guilty for being there, but rather to appreciate the fact that I had made it and to enjoy it for everyone back home. The situation at home made me feel even closer to my native Louisianian and current Cub, Todd Walker. I had on his jersey and, of course, an LSU hat to represent.
I always get goosebumps when I hear the National Anthem. This time it was unreal. I thought of how many times I had seen this very sight on TV and I thought of Louisiana. In the first inning after a Todd Walker single, I turned to the guy next to me and told him how I had been watching Todd play since he was at LSU. Derrek Lee sent the next pitch deep enough to get Todd to third, but he collapsed right before the bag. Oh God, I had cursed him. He stayed down longer than baseball players usually do but finally made it off the field. It’s pretty typical that my favorite player would go down during my first inning at Wrigley.
The rest of the game is kind of a blur to me. The Cubs won, though. And against the Astros, my least favorite team in Major League Baseball (and the one closest to BR). Kyle joined me in the 7th inning. We had a couple of hot dogs and beers. At sometime during the game, I had to go apply for a credit card to get the free blanket. Wrigley in September was more than I bargained for, and my jersey and the free t-shirt ESPN handed out before the game weren’t cutting it.
After the game, we walked around Wrigleyville, hitting Murphy’s and the Cubby Bear for some more Old Style. I walked around the entire stadium, checking out things from every angle. Kyle said I looked like a kid in a candy shop. The neighborhood was even more alive after the game than before. The atmosphere was that of a street carnival. Some guys played metal drums in the street, and people were spilling out of the local bars. I just kept eying that white "W" flag flying over the magical green scoreboard. Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!
It didn’t matter that the Cubs were mathematically out of contention by that time. I had flown away from a hurricane to see a game at Wrigley. And the Cubs rewarded me with a win. It’s an amazing feeling to scratch off the number one item on your "To Do Before I Die" list. Sure, there will be other things to cross off in the future. Some will surely be more important. And I’ll see other Cubs games. But I’ll always remember my first time.
I arrived at work Monday morning to very good news. The Cubs have picked up the option on Todd Walker. He will be a Cub for at least one more year. This may not have even registered on the radars of many fans, but it brought a lot of joy to this postseason deprived Louisianian.
When the Cubs let Mark Grace go at the end of his career, I wondered if I would be able to find a favorite player on the team. In fact, for a little while I wondered if I could ever really feel the same about a team that could overlook the loyalty and career numbers of a player who stayed with them during their long affair with futility. Grace was the reason I became a Cub fan, and it was hard to imagine the team without him.
Of course, I got over it, especially after Gracie was vindicated with a World Series championship the very year he left a team that continued on a 93 year championship drought. But as the season began, I was still searching for a hero. A Giants friend of mine told me the new Cub, and ex-Giant, Bill Mueller could be my guy. I didn’t believe. But sure enough, I started to really get behind the clutch hitting, diving in the dirt kind of play of the new 3rd baseman. Just when Mueller was getting hot, he slid into the 3rd base wall at the late Busch Stadium and suffered a busted knee cap. The Cubs let him go before he could get back to 100%. Of course, he won the batting title the next year for the Red Sox.
Again, I needed a hero. When you pull for a team who constantly lets you down, it is imperative that you find one guy you can pull for individually even when you don’t have much to root for in the complete team. Sammy Sosa? Please. By the 2000 season, I was over the whole magic of ’98 thing. He had shown himself to be one of the worst clutch performers and biggest prima donnas in the game. No, I needed a new down and dirty infielder. I was about to get more than I hoped for.
One December evening in 2003, I was sitting at a bar waiting for friends to join me for a Christmas gift exchange and dinner. Before anyone else arrived, I received my gift. Watching ESPN on the TV over the bar, I couldn’t believe what the ticker at the bottom of the screen had just told me. "Red Sox second baseman Todd Walker to Cubs." I jumped up and actually let out a scream.
Again, probably not much of a blip on the average Cub fan’s radar. Sure, Walker had a decent season in Boston. He quietly led the team in most offensive categories, including setting a Red Sox record of five home runs in 12 games, in their upsetting playoff run. His stint in Boston was short, much like those in Minnesota, Colorado, and Cincinnati. I had followed him through all those teams, but my admiration for his play started much earlier.
Todd Walker was one of my favorite LSU players in the early ’90s. After winning freshman of the year honors in 1992, he went on to break LSU and SEC records left and right. In his sophomore season, he was named the Outstanding Player of the College World Series while leading LSU to its second title in three years. After becoming the first Tiger to bat .400 for a season and earning his degree, he was the eighth overall draft pick by the Twins in 1994. Later, Baseball America would name him the best college second baseman of the modern era.
In all of LSU’s success in the ’90s, few of their players have gone on to long professional careers. It has been fun to see a player I had enjoyed so much as a Tiger go on to play for so many years. But nothing can match having that player on the team I love. Walker hasn’t had quite the professional numbers that he had in college and his speed on the basepath has been a liability for a second baseman at times, but he plays hard, hits in the clutch, and maintains a humble disposition in the clubhouse. Last season he hit .305 for the Cubs. That’s better than most of the team.
As much as I’m hopeful about next season (exactly 5 months from today), it probably won’t be the drought-ending season we are all waiting for. Still, at least I’ll have my guy. And who knows? Maybe my next guy is waiting in the wings to be the one who brings it home to the North Side.